Academic cooperation and European strategic autonomy – sideshow or part of the puzzle?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU’s strategic autonomy is being ever more tied to the notion of Europe’s (exclusive) access to key technologies, and as a result academia suddenly finds itself drawn into a conflictual space, writes Thomas Jorgensen.. EPA-EFE/BRAIS LORENZO [EPA-EFE/BRAIS LORENZO]

The EU’s strategic autonomy is being ever more tied to the notion of Europe’s (exclusive) access to key technologies, and as a result, academia suddenly finds itself drawn into a conflictual space, writes Thomas Jorgensen.

Thomas Jorgensen is a senior policy coordinator, at the European University Association

International cooperation in research, education and innovation is slowly moving out of the fringes and towards the centre of EU foreign policy.

The claim of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to lead a “geopolitical Commission” might not have been a breakthrough for the EU as a global player, but it has led to discussions about the EU’s strategic autonomy, defined by EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Joseph Borrell as the “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible.”

Technological know-how is clearly central to this discussion, particularly the risk that Europe will be dependent on key technologies developed elsewhere.

There is much focus on technologies connected to artificial intelligence, but as the race for COVID-19 vaccines has shown, this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strategic autonomy and technological sovereignty.

It would be logical if academic cooperation and the way that Europe creates new knowledge with global partners became part of this puzzle.

Nevertheless, the way the EU cooperates (or not) with global partners to develop new knowledge has been curiously absent from global strategies set out in the flurry of Communications from the “geopolitical Commission”.

Looking at the relations with the US – still globally the big partner for academic cooperation – the European Commission’s Communication on “A new EU-US Agenda” has a reference to a Green Tech Alliance, and there is talk in Brussels (more than in Washington) about a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, but the focus here is more on how to govern and manage technology and less on how to create new knowledge together.

The member states, in their Council Conclusions on EU-US relations, dedicate more space to academic cooperation with the US, but this is explicitly noted as a means to promote people-to-people contact, not pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

For China, where everyone would agree that policies for academic cooperation are needed, the same pattern is visible. In the EU-China strategic outlook, academic cooperation is mentioned in a couple of lines calling for clear rules regarding Chinese access to the Horizon Europe research programme.

In the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the topics arising from academic cooperation are also largely absent, from the commercialisation of common research to Chinese investors scooping up European start-ups.

Academic cooperation is a sideshow in EU foreign policy, overshadowed by the more serious business of trade and security. This is far from new as academic cooperation has traditionally been seen as the easy, soft approach to diplomacy.

Student exchange and common research remain stable even when tensions are high. For example, Russian students can use the Erasmus+ programme to go to the EU; North and South Korea have a common astronomical observatory.

This attitude has been beneficial to the wider academic community. International partnerships enhance the quality of education and research; they are a standard feature of the European university landscape and one of its strengths. Too much geopolitical attention would risk getting in the way of this.

However, the stage for this sideshow is at risk of diminishing. Beneath the geopolitical strategies, European research policies in particular show signs of a new spirit of caution. Former Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas declared that European research was “open to the world”.

This corresponded well to the spirit of the first part of the 2010s: Emerging economies like China, Brazil and South Africa were becoming more mature players on the global research scene, and European universities flocked to open branch campuses in China and established exchange programmes with Brazil.

As the positive story of emerging countries converging with a Western, democratic model has faded, openness is being balanced with caution.

One of the most prominent examples of this new caution is that the new European research programme, Horizon Europe, includes a paragraph that enables the exclusion of third countries from calls related to “Union strategic assets, interests, autonomy or security”.

This responds to a legitimate worry that is not per se foreign to EU research policies: The last research programmes had several security safeguards in its regulation, but it did not mention any concerns about Europe’s autonomy.

The new rules have already raised considerable concern in third countries that plan to associate to Horizon Europe, such as the UK or Switzerland, but also in the wider European research community.

Moreover, the European Commission has plans to issue guidelines to counter foreign interference in academic cooperation, which is timely, but also a sign that this is being increasingly seen as a risky business.

As the EU’s strategic autonomy is being ever more tied to the notion of Europe’s (exclusive) access to key technologies, even keeping close allies at an arms distance, academia suddenly finds itself drawn into a conflictual space.

They are used to a global perspective, but in the past, this space was largely non-conflictual. It was often good to be a sideshow. Countries and regions could start out with the soft people-to-people diplomacy of academic cooperation before going into the tough bits about trade and security, to the benefit of students and researchers, who thrive in an international environment.

The academic community to some extent would like to be a piece of the puzzle of strategic autonomy. The concept entails the promise of increased attention and investment: If Europe wants to be autonomous, it must invest heavily in new knowledge at all levels.

However, the frontiers of human knowledge often require a global effort to be pushed forward. Looking inwards, suspicious of international partners, could come at a high price.

In this situation, Europe and its academic community still need to find the balance between continuing to gain from its vast global activities and being aware of the risks in a complex geopolitical environment.

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